Our eleventh game of season 69/70 had arrived without a victory as I took my place in the Roker End, just behind the Boys Enclosure.
Nottingham Forest were the visitors and were sitting comfortably in mid table, whilst we were marooned at the bottom of the first division.
It would be fair to say that a lot of the early season hope that we could have a more successful season than 1968/69 had been sucked out of the Roker faithful with the dreadful start. No victories in ten games and no goals scored in six of these, it was not hard to see where one of the issues was!
The very bad start and form of the team was perplexing to say the least.
We possessed one of the best uncapped goalkeepers in England in Jimmy Montgomery, Billy Hughes and Dennis Tueart were two young dynamic forwards who would both go on to represent their country. Former England schoolboy internationalist Richie Pitt was showing a lot of promise at centre half.
We also had two members of Alf Ramsey’s initial 1966 World Cup squad in our team, Gordon “Colonel” Harris was coming toward the end of his career and whilst he had lost a lot of the speed that had made him a flying winger in his youth and box to box enforcer as he matured for Burnley, he still possessed real guile and game sense on the park.
The other World Cup squad member was Eight-time England internationalist centre forward Joe Baker (reference recent OTD 9TH August Joe Baker…) who had arrived from Notts Forest in the close season following young local goal machine Colin Suggett’s strange and disappointing transfer to WBA. Baker had been a prolific goal scorer at Hibernian and Arsenal and highly regarded at Forest. Colin Todd was a young home-grown half back who would go on to win twenty-seven caps for England and two league titles with Derby County, he was a rolls Royce of a player already coveted by several top teams even at this early stage of his career. Bobby Kerr was becoming one of the first names on the team sheet with his all-action intelligent ninety-minute plus performances in midfield.
For this game, young Mick McGiven a particular favourite of mine at the time, continued his run in the first team and the “Flowerpot Men”, Ashurst and Irwin were re-united at full back in the absence of injured Martin Harvey, (Irwin retained his position for the rest of the season). The Sunderland substitute was young Scot Bobby Park of whom we had great hopes and who also attracting a lot of attention from other teams.
Forest’s danger men were a sharp dynamic goal scorer in Ian Storey-Moore, who would be awarded his only England cap in January of this season against Netherlands and who would be snapped up by Manchester United in 1972 having already been announced as a Brian Clough signing at Derby. Also attracting some attention was a young nineteen-year-old inside forward Duncan McKenzie a player extremely easy on the eye, who amongst other things would go on to become Brian Clough’s only successful signing during his 44-day spell as Leeds Utd manager.
New Sunderland chairman Jack Parker had issued a rallying call to the fans and an additional 2000 had responded compared to the previous home game, but there was still a general feeling of hopeful rather than confident, as the game kicked off.
This game started no different to all the others I had witnessed this season, there was never any lack of effort. The players appeared to be working hard, but there was something about the way we played that as an eleven-year-old tactical genius I could not put my finger on (a couple of years later it dropped into place as I was able to witness Bob Stokoe’s “shackles off” effect on the team).
There was lots of huff and puff from Sunderland as they methodically moved forward, there was a degree of urgency in defence, Pitt and the “flowerpot men” were not messing about getting the ball cleared and thundering into challenges. The home fans were growing into the game as Sunderland dominated without looking too threatening in front of goal. With our defence snapping into challenges, the forwards started joining in, (today we call this “our press”, back then it was simply getting stuck into them right up the park). It seemed to rattle the experienced Forest defence, led by Terry Hennessy, there was just a bit of a sense of panic on their part as the half progressed and we kept “the press” going!
On forty-four minutes, the pressure told. McGiven, Harris and Todd exchanged passes on the edge of the Forest box, Harris then slipped a slide-rule pass just inside the box to Tueart. The young winger (in what many of us would come to recognise as typical) darted into the box, took the ball in his stride at pace, dummied a defender and slammed a right foot shot toward goal. Hill did well to get a hand on the shot and from my position at the opposite end of the ground, I thought it had been saved.
It was only when the Fulwell Enders started dancing up and down arms aloft that I realised it was a goal, the shot had trickled over the line and the realisation and delight ricocheted around Roker Park.
Just before half-time is a great time to score a goal, so the football cliché goes and it was no different on this occasion. Half-time Bovril tastes all the nicer and the banter was flying as we imagined how many more we would score and who would do the damage in the second half.
The second half resumed and we flew into the game, Forest were really rattled and the Roker fans were really getting behind the team. Hughes and Tueart were flying down their wings and interchanging at will, Baker and Kerr were providing great one touch space creating passes as McGiven, Todd and in particular Harris hardly wasted a pass as they totally dominated midfield.
Joe Baker could easily have scored a hat-trick in this period as he ran his former teammates ragged. A couple of minutes into the half, we did what football wisdom always advises and scored again whilst we were dominating the play.
Baker had pulled his marker to the edge of the box and cleverly chipped a ball into the path of Bobby Kerr who had ghosted into the box. As he was shaping to shoot, a Forest defender impulsively whipped the ball away with his hand the referee immediately awarded a penalty.
I jeered the error and cheered the award of a penalty loudly from my position right behind the goal and remember thinking “what a mistake, why would he do that” of the Forest defender. Karma is a potent teacher, I did the very same thing in a school cup game the following week and let my team down being unable to explain the impulse in that split second to handle the ball. The resultant penalty was scored and we lost the game. Winfield was the offending Forest player and I have never forgotten the lesson or his name!
Up stepped “Colonel” Harris to take the penalty (he was a very good spot kick taker and scored all six of the penalties he took for Sunderland in his time with us). It was the perfect penalty, in fact if the net had not been there, it might have hit me in the face!
Roker Park roared its approval and bayed for more - perhaps this was the turning point in the season.
Despite dominating for the rest of the game, we could not score a third and completely against the run of play, ex-Newcastle player Dave Hilley profited from a double error in our defence.
First, Colin Todd, (one of our best performers on the day), misjudged a cross from Ian Storey-Moore misdirecting his header straight to Duncan McKenzie. The young starlet sublimely chipped Monty, leaving him in no-mans-land as Hilley tapped in at the far post.
This goal might have put the skids under our team given the way the season had gone so far, but it did not. We went back on the offensive and both Baker and Kerr might have scored again, as “Colonel” Harris pulled the strings in midfield.
Despite the ascendency Forest almost snatched an undeserved draw right at the close of the game as McKenzie fashioned a great opportunity for Storey-Moore to head an equaliser. Thankfully he fluffed his lines and the whistle blew for the end of the game.
As I turned and descended the steps from the Roker End, I had an overwhelming sense of a corner turned and that we were going to kick on from this point. Joe Baker and Harris had really shown us what they could bring, and with our young cavaliers, Hughes, Tueart, Todd et al I was convinced we were on the up.
Grasping for any straw and hunting for omens of impending success, I remember listening to sports report on the car radio going home that evening. Celtic had beaten Rangers by a single goal in the Glasgow derby and Harry Hood was the scorer. Our driver waxed lyric about the ex-Sunderland player and by the time I was home, using the illogical logic of football fans I had taken Hood’s winning goal and added it to the evidence that Sunderland were on the march, all was going to be well!
We did win our next game a hard-fought single goal victory at Spurs, but that was as good as it got in a season that saw us relegated along with Sheffield Wednesday. We won only four games at Roker Park all season and drew eleven as we slid into the second division for a second time in our history, with the same manager Alan Brown in charge on both occasions.
It was a hard slog of a season and a real test of my resolve to keep the faith. I along with many thankfully did keep the faith and lived to tell the tale.
Date - 20th September 1969 // Division One
Venue - Roker Park // Attendance 16,044
Sunderland 2 - 1 Nottingham Forest
Sunderland – Montgomery, Ashurst, Irwin, Pitt, McGiven, Todd, Harris (1 penalty), Kerr, Hughes, Tueart (1), Baker. Sub - Park
Nottingham Forest – Hill, Hindley, Winfield, Chapman, Hennessy, Newton, Rees, O’Kane, Hilley (1), Storey-Moore, McKenzie. Sub – Barnwell